Search for phoenix in pottery ash

May 28, 2004

With a little help from Staffordshire University, Mike Wolfe hopes to put Stoke back on the map. Matt Baker reports.

Under the watchful gaze of the statue of Josiah Wedgwood, Mike Wolfe is the first to acknowledge that the kind of visionary thinking that came to characterise Stoke-on-Trent's favourite son is sorely needed in the Potteries.

"Wedgwood was a great moderniser," enthuses the city's new mayor. "He made people aspire to achieve and gave the city a sense of purpose and that's the size of my task as mayor."

It's just over 18 months since Wolfe was elected on a promise to drag the city kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And despite constant in-fighting from a bitterly divided council and the continuing presence of the British National Party in the region, the former manager of the city's Citizens Advice Bureau is still confident of delivering his mandate for reform.

But only if graduates from Staffordshire and Keele universities are prepared to commit to staying in the area.

And there's the rub. The Potteries has what is reckoned to be one of the worst "brain drains" in the country. Which is why Wolfe is in the process of planning a new university quarter that will give graduates ample incentives to stay.

Wolfe aims to get the project under way within the next 18 months and a feasibility study by business consultants Locum is at an advanced stage.

He wants to commit tens of millions of pounds to new housing, a modern library, a host of purpose-built teaching areas and a graduate-led commercial strip that will support and unleash a new breed of entrepreneur on the city.

And despite there being plenty of obstacles to overcome, there are already signs that Wolfe's talk of Stoke-on-Trent being a tabula rasa that is ready to be shaped into a modern city by graduates is having some effect.

On my suggestion we visit Staffordshire University and ask random students whether they plan to stay in the area after graduating. To Wolfe's obvious pleasure, the first person approached, Emelie Helsen, a 25-year-old final-year design and photography student from Bruges, Belgium, says "yes" without hesitation.

"I've just got a job here as a student activities coordinator and I want to stay because the people in Stoke are friendly and it's a very affordable city," she explains. "I'm not prepared to invest a lot of money to move to a big city just yet and I think I can develop my career here."

Just around the corner from the student union we stumble across what's become an easily recognisable symbol of urban renaissance - a cappuccino bar. And this one was founded by a local graduate.

"My boyfriend, who came to Staffordshire University from France to study Chinese business management, set this up because he liked the area but kept saying it needed a café culture," explains Cecily Mennell, the café's co-founder.

So far so good. But these are isolated examples and not the experience of thousands of other graduates who depart to more promising pastures every year.

"It's really frustrating to lose great minds that we know could benefit the area immensely," admits Christine King, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire.

"There's a lot of people who want to stay but are not able to because the opportunities are not here and we're naturally very excited that Mike is making it a priority to address this."

Rob Davies is a typical example of a graduate who wanted to stay. "I graduated from Staffordshire University in 1996 with a first-class degree in media studies," explains the 33-year-old from Manchester who is now a community team leader for Warwickshire Libraries. "Looking back, I faced more problems as a graduate than I did as a student. Money was an obvious problem, but finding a suitable full-time job proved to be a lot more difficult.

"I spent nine months looking for jobs in Stoke. Housing was a problem as most landlords are only interested in students, and at one point I was sleeping on a friend's living-room floor. By the time I left, I had lived in 14 different houses and was determined to move out of the area at all costs."

At the time, Davies was more used to seeing job pages filled with vacancies for posts such as saggar maker, fettler and bottom knocker. Today's vacancies in the local newspaper include posts for a lottery development officer, graphic designers and a range of health-related vacancies for the city's new medical school.

But is Stoke truly geared up to accept an influx of graduates? "One problem we're finding," concedes Paul Richards, Staffordshire's deputy vice-chancellor, "is that small businesses in the region are sometimes reluctant to take on graduates. They wonder how they're going to manage them and they have a certain fear of graduates' intelligence."

The best way to counter this, argues Wolfe, is to ensure that the experience of learning becomes more central to the community. "We have a huge problem locally in low levels of educational achievement," he says, "and I need to forge an educational partnership between the city council and learning institutions at every level.

"Many young people think that going to university or college is beyond them and if we can persuade them that this is not the case, we can equip people with the skills that are needed to reinvent Stoke-on-Trent."

King agrees. "What Mike's trying to do is translate the old Stoke-on-Trent work ethic into a new way of living," she explains. "We need to see this attitude in a new learning-based economy."

Wolfe believes that the introduction of a standout university quarter representing creativity, cultural diversity and innovation will rapidly accelerate the city's modernisation process.

Matt Farrar is the kind of success story he hopes will be emulated.

Farrar's Stoke-based software company, Live Information Systems, is ranked number six in Chancellor Gordon Brown's 2004 inner-city 100 league table, which measures the most successful urban businesses in the UK. Since 1997, Farrar's business has seen a 1,300 per cent rise in turnover.

Will Hutton, executive director of The Work Foundation, says the new goal for post-industrial cities is to become an ideopolis and Wolfe hopes the introduction of more creative spaces and design units as well as interest-free loans and better support for graduates who want to start their own businesses will go some way towards transforming Stoke into a city of ideas.

"Stoke-on-Trent has a strong creative tradition, and with the right support I don't see why we can't become a crucible of creativity," King says.

Wolfe says his reform programme should change the face of the city within eight years, but he warns that this will come about only if the city embraces more diversity. "The demography of Stoke-on-Trent is too monocultural at the moment," he argues. "People shouldn't be afraid of some gentrification either. As long as gentrification isn't something that excludes everyone but instead raises everyone's aspirations so that children in schools in deprived areas want to be lawyers, teachers, etc, that's a positive change."

But will these changes be stubbornly resisted by the majority? "I don't think so anymore," King says. "Everyone knows we have no choice but to change. People don't have nostalgia for the past because the past has failed them. It's that simple."

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